The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected India’s marine fisheries sector. The loss of marine fish production since the lockdown has been estimated at Rs 6,700 crore per month.
Fishing communities operating small fishing craft and the thousands of migrant workers who are crew on the larger craft were unexpectedly forced into difficult straits. With upcoming monsoon fishing bans, their conditions are likely to get worse.
The monetary losses along the value chain, providing livelihood to several lakhs, have not yet been assessed. Seafood export has come to a standstill. Last year (2019) exports averaged about Rs 3,600 crore per month, and this figure indicates the potential losses due to the pandemic.
The third tranche of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan – the economic stimulus announced by the union government - provided a measly Rs. 20,000 crore for fisheries under the PM Matsya Sampada Yojana.
The share for marine fisheries is small. The much-needed lockdown income support for the fishing communities is also missing.
The crisis caused by Covid-19 and the lockdown provides an opportunity to think out of the box regarding the future of marine fisheries.
This article offers some suggestions that go against the tide of the much-touted first and the second 'Blue Revolutions'.
The first Blue Revolution of the 1960s had introduced inappropriate fishing technology (trawlers, purse-seiners), promoted open access to coastal waters, resulted in ecological damage and economic inequalities evident today in marine fishing.
The second Blue Revolution, unveiled in 2019, focuses on capital and energy intensive mariculture by privatising the coastal sea with the help of international finance and foreign expertise.
These suggestions provide a re-visioning of a modernised small-scale fishery with the use of skilled human labour supported by knowledge-intensive technologies keeping in mind public health, decent work, ecological sanctity, energy efficiency, economic viability, employment opportunity, self-reliance, nutritional safety and equity.
Around 270,000 fishing crafts are being used for marine fish harvesting in India. Of these craft, around a quarter are fully mechanised and operate from 85 harbours.
The remaining crafts, mostly motorised, operate from varyingly dispersed 1,300 beach landing centres – one every 17 kilometres in Gujarat and just three kilometres apart in Tamil Nadu -- along the country's 6,000 km mainland coastline.
In marine fisheries, the output is a perpetual harvest without lead time. The harvested fish is transacted immediately on landing, transported to near and distant markets or directly to consumers for sale.
During the lockdown most maritime states proclaimed a total ban on fishing fearing inability to maintain physical distancing on boats and unmanageable overcrowding at the landing centres.
Moreover, ice factories, processing plants, transportation facilities and markets were mostly on lockdown.
Some states permitted small-scale fishing with two to three fishers per craft. The period also saw local-level initiatives of organised small-scale fishing and sale, maintaining physical distancing norms, on beaches, landing centres and retail markets.
To avoid the inevitable crowding at auctions, negotiated fixed prices and sales by weight were experimented, with varied success. Overall, the gains for fishers was significant, since the demand for fish outstripped supply.
The complete ban on port-based fishing crafts – trawlers, purse-seiners and ring seiners – resulted in significant loss of revenue for owners and income and employment to a large number of migrant labourers who worked and lived on these crafts.
However, the ban resulted in fish shoals moving closer to the coast resulting in higher yields for the small-scale operators at lower unit operating cost.
Re-visioning support for the 'small'
Fishing communities along the coast thought that Covid-19 was a short-term problem.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that if marine fishing is to continue, new norms in fishing, fish marketing and fish consumption must be innovated, prioritising personal safety, public health, sanitation and food safety considerations as never before.
Fishers go out to sea, away from mainstream society, work in a highly saline environment.
This makes their renewed operations both safe and a huge economic and employment boon for the country.
A healthy and wealthy marine fishery for the future must be a decentralised and more sustainable one.
Communities involved should be given a legitimate claim to space on the coastline.
This is top priority. Fishing hamlets are already spatially spread. This structure needs to be reinforced. The backbone of the marine fishery should be small fishing craft which can utilise multiple energy sources both for propulsion and fishing.
These small-scale undecked craft need to be equipped with durable sails, small efficient engines with a maximum of 10 Horse Power, solar panels for lights, Global Positioning System (GPS) for voyage tracking and fish finding, smart phones for receiving weather information, price information and keeping contact with their base.
They should get back to using their smaller, passive and seasonally utilised fishing gear (nets and tackle) which conserves marine biodiversity.
Based on the principle of subsidiarity of size they should be ensured exclusive access to the Territorial Sea extending 12 nautical miles from the coast and permission to go beyond, if desired.
The above measures will reverse the unsustainable dependence on fossil fuel and reduce the carbon footprint.
Fish harvested will be fresher, in keeping with seasonal patterns and directed for wholesome human consumption. It will revive the innate and amazing occupational skills, ecosystem knowledge and intuitive ingenuity of traditional fishing communities.
Such fishers are unlikely to be soon replaced by artificial intelligence driven robots. The last hunter-gatherer domain on this planet will surely survive into the remainder of the 21st century and beyond.
There is also scope for master-trainers from fishing communities to train newcomers who are keen to take to modernised small-scale fishing.
Given the many hundred thousand fishers in our coastal communities, their post-lockdown future will be bright.
Herein also lies the challenge for educated youth, with a spirit of adventure, to take to fishing.
They can also take creative initiatives to form new, participative, producer organisations to increase their collective strength to garner and enhance financial support, social security and welfare measures entitled to them as original ‘atmanirbhar’ (self-reliant) food producers.
More introspection on the 'large'
The large-scale crafts harvesting enormous quantities of fish promote economies of scale.
Harvests from these vessels account for most of the fresh fish exports to China and other South East Asian countries at rates below domestic prices, the dollar earning being the main attraction.
The fish they land also caters to the heightened demand for fishmeal (used in poultry, animal and aquaculture feeds) spurring uncontrolled and wholly unsustainable fishing in coastal waters.
Shoaling pelagic species like oil sardines and anchovies – the most nutritious fish to boost human health and immunity, particularly among children and the aged – are thus diverted to feed livestock.
Reviving this larger scale, harbour-based mechanised fishing, though it accounts for the largest share of marine fish harvest and employment in the sector, therefore needs far more cautious introspection.
This is also because physical distancing is near impossible on them and also at the harbours. Moreover, ensuring that they fish beyond the Territorial Sea will be difficult to implement in haste.
Avoiding the current system of auctioning is in the interest of post-lockdown public health and food safety requirements.
The prevailing auctioning system is no doubt a good way to ‘clear the market’ but it is generally loaded against the fishers and fish consumers.
In the long run, fishers will benefit most from a price for each fish species fixed for a particular time period – a week, month or season.
Getting a fair first-sale price is key to a fisher’s stable income. This is their right.
Arriving at a first-sale price is best done by initiating a transparent and fair negotiation between fishers and those who buy the fish from them.
For example, one organisation of fishers (cooperative, union, group) and one organisation of the buyers (association, committee, group) can negotiate these first sale price settlements. These prices are then made valid for the whole area (state, district, or landing centre) for the given period of time.
Such a negotiated first-sale price is a fair deal for both fishers (producers) and buyers (distributors) and should be backed by legal provisions.
This will ensure that auctioneers and/or buyers who provide credit to the fishers, do not have privileged access to their fish, since the law will delink the credit market from the product market.
Communicating these base prices widely through newspapers, TV and radio will ensure that final consumers, on the whole, will get a fair retail price.
Such arrangements and practices, instituted over 90 years ago in Norway, were key enablers to the historical development trajectory of their renown fishery.
A Regulated Fish Marketing Act licencing all wholesale and retail fish markets, merchants and commission agents is needed.
The fish buyers at landing centres also need registration which should include rules on physical distancing, hygienic fish handling, food safety standards, clean and proper storage, transportation and selling facilities.
Women fish buyers/sellers should get priority consideration in the changed system by allotting them a quota to the fish species they distribute.
The way women fish sellers reach out to fish consumers also needs change.
They need to form collectives and be re-trained to better utilise their amazing sales talents. Greater communications with consumers, through use of the smart/cell-phone, forming seller-consumer WhatsApp groups and measures such as mobile fish stalls and three-wheeler delivery vans providing cleaned and cut fish to urban consumers are ways to enhance both their incomes and the dignity of their occupations.
Taken together as an integrated package, a decentralised small-scale fishery will greatly enhance coastal incomes, create decent, safe and sustainable employment, and greatly increase the role of fish as nutritious food for local human consumption.
These are vital ingredients for a post-lockdown fishery development strategy.
(The author is a visiting Professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and an honorary fellow at the World Fish Centre in Penang, Malaysia)